Nanotechnology, Chemical Engineering Adding to High-Tech Forestry in Arkansas

 August 16, 2017

Arkansas is leading the way in advanced-technology forestry. The timber and forest-products industry is often thought of as being a low-tech industry, but in reality, it is anything but. The use of cutting-edge developments like nanotechnology, chemical engineering and computer programming, has transformed the way timber is harvested and how products are produced from raw materials.

There have been numerous groundbreaking developments in wood technologies recently. On a small scale, research and development in nano-scale cellulose, or wood fiber, is currently ongoing in the University of Arkansas at Monticello College of Forestry, Agriculture & Natural Resources in cooperation with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and several other Arkansas universities. This research has fostered breakthroughs in new wood-cellulose products, including advanced food packaging and pathogen-resistant medical dressings. On a larger scale, the development of engineered timbers is providing new and better ways to build larger, taller and safer multi-story buildings.

New technologies in the industry are also providing more detailed and timely information to foresters, helping them keep our forests healthy and sustainable. By integrating “big data” into policy and the decision-making process, foresters are able to predict threats to forest health and identify ways to improve forest productivity and lower management costs. Scientists in the Division of Agriculture and the University of Arkansas School of Forestry and Natural Resources are investigating how trees interact with changes in the environment on a cellular level and are learning how to genetically select trees with great resilience to climate change.

When it comes to the future of our forests, high-tech means there is nearly zero waste. The goal is for 100 percent of the biomass removed  from the forest to be used for a salable product through efficient conversion technologies, recycling, wood fiber or generating energy from renewable sources. These adaptations and the renewable nature of the products play an important role in producing a resource that is making our planet greener and more sustainable. 

In the wood basket of Arkansas, timber is growing at an all-time-high rate. To keep up with production, the industry now requires more skilled labor, with a greater demand for engineers, electricians, computer programmers, skilled maintenance workers and welders. Forestry jobs in logging, sawmills and paper mills now require computer and information technology skills more than ever before for both the operation and maintenance of equipment. With over 70,000 skilled workers employed in timber and paper-related industries, Arkansas has the workforce to accommodate expansion.

As the wood-industry expands into bio-energy, engineered wood products and cellulosic nanotechnology, continued workforce development will be critical. Two-year and associate programs for young people and lifelong learning opportunities for the current workforce must be in place to ensure continued growth. Universities in Arkansas will play a leading role in educating at the technical, four-year and graduate levels.

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